One turns to many sources to understand the character of Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president. There are his longtime fellow members in the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom he served time in Hosni Mubarak’s prison cells. (“He is steadfast, and pragmatic.”) There are his aides and advisers. (“He is a very careful listener,” “he is meticulous.”) There are his critics in the judiciary and the opposition parties. (“He is politically inept,” “he has the traits of a Pharaoh.”) There are the thousands of men and women who have taken to the streets against him. (“He is a puppet of the Brotherhood.”) And there are the ordinary people whose lives, quite by chance, have come to overlap with his. (A watermelon seller on a corner near his house told me this summer, “He has a good heart.”) There is fact and then, of course, there are the makings of political fiction.
When Morsi ran for president of the republic in the spring of 2012—the second candidate of choice for the Muslim Brotherhood after their first, Khairat El-Shater, was disqualified because of a recent criminal record—few thought he had a chance. Here was a man with little of the personal appeal necessary to convince or sway, and no apparent vision save for the Al-Nahda (“Renaissance”) project that the secretive Muslim Brotherhood had prescribed as the answer to the struggles of a nation. The details of that “project” were vague, revealed only in much-repeated phrases: “job creation,” “Islam,” “economic revival,” “opportunity for youth,” “the next generation,” “Islam.” At Morsi campaign rallies you would also hear the words “religion,” “deviation,” and “redemption.”
Despite the backing of the leaders of the Brotherhood, who had proven their campaigning skills with a sweeping parliamentary win earlier in the year, Morsi’s uninspired presence pulled him down in the polls. Analysts cast his chances as shaky. Seemingly more popular were the charismatic moderate Islamist and former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the former Mubarak minister Ahmed Shafik, and the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
There was also the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to factor in—it had governed Egypt since Mubarak stepped down and controlled vast economic interests that it wanted to protect. It seemed unlikely that it would allow a potential threat to those interests to take power; many people believed that the regime’s millions of civil servants would be mobilized ahead of the vote in support of the army’s candidate of choice. The Islamists had been seen as an enemy of the army ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser cracked down on them in 1965. With the fall of Mubarak, the SCAF tried to fend off a rise of Islam. In the days before the second round of the presidential election in June 2012, it issued a sweeping constitutional declaration that diminished the powers of the president-to-be.
Morsi, and his Brotherhood supporters, then, trumped them all—the other candidates, but also the special agencies and forces of the state—to clinch an office long controlled by military officers. Many theories still circulate, trying to explain how he did it. The Brotherhood, it is said, propped up the Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahy to bring Morsi’s Islamist rival Aboul Fotouh down. The US government quietly decided to support the Brotherhood. The Mubarak strongman Ahmed Shafik actually won but the Brotherhood threatened mayhem and so results were fudged.
Whatever the case, Morsi’s win seemed less about his popularity and the efficiency of the Muslim Brotherhood as a campaigning machine, and more about the opposition, particularly the splintered vote of the liberal and secular and leftist factions, whose choices of candidates offered little variation in their rhetoric and plans. Up until the final moment at polling stations back in June, many people I spoke to said they were undecided. Taken together, however, the opposition candidates received a sizable chunk of the vote.
Morsi won by three percent—51.7 percent to Shafik’s 48.3—while just over half the eligible electorate of 51 million took part. His supporters these days justify his actions as taken “on behalf of the people”; but the nation was not overwhelmingly behind him and his proclaimed ideals.
Was the nation divided between those in favor of the old regime and those in favor of the Islamists? Or was it the case that millions of young Egyptians who had taken to the streets to oppose Mubarak were voting “no” to Mubarak’s Shafik, rather than “yes” to Morsi? As the prominent newspaper editor Hassanein Heikal has said at dinner parties and on TV: “It was not that people knew what they wanted and were voting for it. They simply knew what they didn’t want, and they were voting against it.” Many of my own friends—who identify themselves as liberal, secular, “revolutionary”—voted against the possibility of a return to the life we had known.
For the public, Morsi’s win will be remembered by his first speech in Tahrir Square on Friday, June 29, 2012, at 5 PM. Standing in the scorching heat amid the crowd of hundreds of thousands, it was hard to believe that an Islamist, a Muslim Brother, had become the president of Egypt. Around me were some people who genuinely believed that the Brotherhood could save Egypt, and them. But then there were others, like some of my friends who voted for Morsi, who were much more pleased by Shafik’s loss than Morsi’s victory.
The president spoke about the tasks before him—the economy, unity, jobs, youth, and the betterment of lives. There was little new to his words, little to sway those who might have been on the fence about him. But where Morsi succeeded in winning over people who might have otherwise shrugged him off as an Islamist spewing empty rhetoric was in his actions that day. The presidential podium had been carefully angled to be protected by the presidential guards and secret service and snipers. But Morsi moved spontaneously away from the podium, away from the microphone, shouting empathically as he walked across the stage, apparently unaware that the crowds could not hear a word.
We all watched as his security guards scrambled to surround him, and then as they panicked when he pushed them away and moved forward on stage toward the crowd, now with a wireless microphone in hand. He opened his blazer to the crowds, and asked them to look. He wore just a thin baby-blue shirt, with no bulletproof vest, “because,” he said, “it isn’t necessary.” He was one of them, “the people.”
Morsi won me over that day. He won over my mother too, although she’s long been wary of the Islamists. He won over many who in those moments thought he deserved a chance. After that speech, he was described, repeatedly, as “kind.” And then some weeks later, in August 2012, when he announced the “transfer,” “into early retirement,” of the top two generals of the SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Anan, he persuaded some of those who had remained on the fence. His firing of the top generals “under the guise of retirement,” as the press observed, provoked little by way of resistance or reaction from them or the army itself. (Tantawi, it was said, wanted to retire anyway, and to have immunity from prosecution.)
The Brotherhood had long been considered the master of back-room deals, but this collusion with the army did not come in for much criticism at the time. Morsi’s getting rid of the top generals, and his annulling the constitutional declaration that had given them wide-ranging powers, were widely seen as his triumphant answer to an attempted coup by the armed forces against the presidency in June. Hours after the polls had closed in the June election, the SCAF issued a declaration giving itself legislative powers, control over the budget and the writing of the constitution, and stripping the new president of authority over the army—a move that had been criticized by both the opposition and the Brotherhood. Now the words “strong” and “capable” were being used to describe Morsi.
In late November 2012, Morsi tried to bring off a coup of his own. He granted himself unlimited powers to protect the nation and pass legislation without judicial oversight. Some said that his “bosses” in the Muslim Brotherhood knew exactly what they were doing in supporting this move and that they were well aware of the reactions it might provoke. The phrase “power grab” had been increasingly used with respect to the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. As the months after the revolution wore on, the Brotherhood kept adding to the many posts and parliamentary seats that its leaders said they would contest or angle for. Essam El-Erian, the longtime spokesman for the Brotherhood and vice-president of its Freedom and Justice Party, first told me in April 2011 that the group would contest “20 percent” of the parliament’s seats; he later said “25 to 30 percent,” then “40 percent,” then “a majority.”
In the press you could read that the Brotherhood was engaged in one “power grab” after another—of the parliament, the cabinet, the press itself. And beginning last spring, there was another power grab during the drafting of the constitution for the new, democratic Egypt. What was meant to be a “representative” one-hundred-member Constitutional Assembly had been turned, by the Islamist-led parliament, into an Islamist-dominated one, and one in which the Islamists—the Muslim Brotherhood members but also ultra-orthodox Salafis—were trying, increasingly, to impose their own rigid, radical views.
During the summer, I chatted with the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa at his campaign villa after he lost the election. Discussing what an Islamist-led Egypt might look like, he kept, apologetically, taking phone calls. I heard him say:
We must do it….
But it’s important for the country….
I urge you, this is the starting point of collaboration….
Please, we want to have a meeting tomorrow to speak to people….
We must try….
I knew he was on the phone with Sameh Ashour, chairman of the Lawyers Syndicate, discussing the Constitutional Assembly, of which they were both members. Several members had announced they were withdrawing from it on grounds that it was “unrepresentative,” and there were murmurings about a possible boycott. Moussa, whom the Muslim Brotherhood first cast as felool (an affiliate of the former regime), was trying to rally support for the assembly. “We have to try to make it work,” he told me. “We have to give them a chance.”
On November 18, Moussa withdrew from the assembly, and before long the remaining non-Islamists had resigned as well. Moussa, Ashour, the representatives of the Coptic church, and members of the opposition and “youth revolutionaries” all cited the “lack of collaboration” from the Islamists, who they said were trying to “impose” their views. This president and his government, many also said, were doing little to preserve the revolution’s proclaimed goals—bread, freedom, and the dignity of equality for all. A protest was planned for November 23, against both the constitution and rising prices.